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UNICEF to Tackle Western Woes of Education

It is 10:30 am on a weekday in the quiet hills of rural western Jamaica. The residents of Cacoon Castle exist here hundreds of miles away from the heavily-trafficked capital city of Kingston. They traverse long stretches of rugged terrain to access main roads and surrounding communities.

A group of adults sit outside a small community shop, playing a game of dominoes. A truck passes by on the dusty road, transporting farmers from the community. Two children, a brother and sister ages 9 and 11, emerge from the hillside. They are dressed in plain clothes and have been at home all morning. Neither one is attending school.

This is a common sight and a shared reality for deep rural communities in the western parishes of Jamaica. Communities here are plagued by high unemployment and poverty. The closest schools are a long distance from home, and public transportation is expensive – for some families it is prohibitive. Over 65 per cent of Jamaica’s out-of-school population live in rural areas.

Up to 70 per cent of students in the rural western region of Jamaica are receiving assistance from the government to attend school, through the conditional cash transfer Programme of Advancement through Health and Education (PATH). Yet, attendance remains intermittent. Not only is it difficult for children to get to school every day, many are made to work throughout the week to help their families with fishing and farming, which are major economic lifelines.

At the secondary level, attendance is low and drop-out rates are high. In the parishes of Westmoreland and Hanover, where UNICEF will invest in a range of focused community-based interventions, the average attendance is under 80 per cent. This means the average student will miss about 8 weeks of school or about 40 of the 180 days of each school year.

With chronic absenteeism and few post-school opportunities for employment, children are being lured by the highly lucrative trades that thrive in the major urban areas on this side of the island – primarily commercial sex work and lottery scamming.

“There is nothing to do when you leave school”, says Mark, a 17 year-old boy who lives in the Whitehouse community adjacent to Negril, the bustling tourist center of Westmoreland. “Even if you get an education, you don’t have a way to make it.” Mark’s sense of futility is one that prevails across the parishes.

Through the community-based ‘CHOICE’ programme to be rolled out in Westmoreland and Hanover over the next four years, UNICEF and partners will be working to increase school attendance rates and provide educational opportunities for children who are out of school.

The target is to increase the average daily student attendance among 10,000 enrolled students by at least 5 per cent. This will involve a number of strategies that tackle both socio-economic factors and conditions within the schools themselves.

These will include better support to parents to improve how they engage with schools, better support to students to help reduce absenteeism, including  help with transportation and meals, and helping schools become more child-friendly via better teaching and disciplinary practices.

UNICEF and partners are also aiming to give 150 at-risk adolescents another chance at education through informal schooling. Community schools and other support services will be used to re-engage these children, provide concrete opportunities and help them rebuild a sense of hope about their future.



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